For many of us, bad habits are a mindless way of taking a break—whether you’re overeating or staying up way too late each night. “If you’re upset with the kids, you might step outside to have a smoke,” says Carol Scurfield of the Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg. That’s why you must find a new way to deal with stress. “I don’t care if you’re trying to quit drugs or a twice-a-day Tim Hortons habit, if you don’t find a new behaviour to replace the bad, you’ll relapse,” says Jim Seager, chair of the Canadian Addiction Counsellors Certification Board (Atlantic chapter).
To help you kick your bad habit, we’ve polled the experts and determined the stages typically involved in giving up your vice, from pre-contemplation to maintenance. Understanding this five-step cycle will give your quitting plan extra power.
Where you’re at
“Other people are hinting that something is wrong, but you don’t think you have a problem,” says Judy Turner, a Toronto psychologist and co-author of The Healthy Boomer: A No-Nonsense Midlife Health Guide for Women and Men (McClelland). It’s also called pre-contemplation.
Copland’s kids had been bugging her for years to give up the smokes. Consider the number of people who have mentioned your bad habit recently.
Ask yourself questions
Even if you aren’t ready to quit smoking or biting your nails, do you know why you do it? “These behaviours aren’t the problem. They’re the symptom,” says Scurfield. When 41-year-old Cecilia Booth, a mother of two from Toronto, asked herself some tough questions, she discovered that boredom and anxiety were the root of her overeating habit. “The stress of parenting and looking for a job can be a lot,” she says. Food was a quick fix.
Keep a diary
Identify patterns by writing down how you feel each day, your attitude toward work and family, when you indulge in your habit and how you feel afterwards, says Seager. “You can release some stress just by writing it down,” adds Turner. Plus, pinpointing emotional triggers may help you avoid them. A clinical study by Mustafa al’Absi at the University of Minnesota found that women trying to quit smoking were more likely to relapse due to emotional stress than men.
Where you’re at
At this contemplation stage, you’re beginning to face the fact that you’re doing something that’s unhealthy, says Turner. It could be that a young friend or colleague has a heart attack. Suddenly, your nightly ritual of watching reality TV shows while snacking on fatty treats takes on a brand new significance.
Put yourself first
“I always ask people, ‘How is it that you can stay up all night to meet a deadline or get up at 5 a.m. to get a spot for your kid at kinder gym, but you can’t find an hour for yourself?'” says Turner. Carve out time for yourself now. Otherwise, you may sabotage your future quitting efforts because many bad habits are done on the run.
Do your homework
Read about your problem and how it affects your well-being. For example, having just 10 drinks or more per week can increase your risk of cancer and even brain shrinkage, according to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
When Susan McKie’s clock radio announced that it was Weedless Wednesday one morning earlier this year, it was the wake-up call she needed. For the 51-year-old makeup artist from Oakville, Ont., knowing that other people were giving up their habit encouraged her to get through her first smoke-free day. Gear up by talking to friends who’ve quit a bad habit, or check out health resources online (see Quitting resources).
Where you’re at
“You’re not just determined to do something, you’re starting to develop a program to do it,” says Turner of the phase aptly called preparation.
Consult some experts
Make an appointment with your doctor, a dietitian, a therapist or an addiction counsellor. Ask questions about how to quit and where to find resources in your neighbourhood. Copland didn’t think she could quit smoking cold turkey, for example, so she got a Zyban prescription.
Make other plans
If you want to stop after-dinner snacking, plan other activities. “If your neighbour walks her dog every night at a certain time, ask to join her,” says Turner. Or, conquer your drive-through disorder by attending a healthy cooking class or downloading low-fat recipes from our Recipe File. For Booth, a lot of mindless noshing happened while watching TV. “My first plan was to stop eating in front of the TV and to only eat at the table,” says Booth. She has a lot more energy as a result.
Going public makes you more accountable, which is why so many habit-kicking programs suggest getting a sponsor or buddy. “Find someone who is good at kicking your butt but who is also loving and gentle,” says Seager. That’s how Pam Jessen, a 42-year-old administrative assistant in Calgary, ended up kicking her pack-a-day smoking habit. “My girlfriend and I had said we were going to quit together,” says Jessen. “But I wasn’t prepared when she came to me one Friday and told me she was quitting Monday.” That weekend, Jessen read Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking (Penguin), while smoking the whole time. “On Sunday night, I puffed what turned out to be my last cigarette,” she says.
Where you’re at
You’re starting to exchange bad habits for good ones at this action level. Be wary, though. “There may be a sense of deprivation,” warns Turner.
Ask your partner, your kids and your colleagues not to bring chips, pop or chocolate bars—whatever your weakness is—near you. Take a hiatus from friends who smoke.
Post some signs
“When you’re craving the indulgence, look for visual cues to stop yourself,” says Turner. If you run for the medicine cabinet at the slightest sign of a headache, Turner suggests taping a note to your medication of choice. “Write something like ‘Try relaxation techniques for 15 minutes before using.'” That worked for McKie. She keeps a list of reasons for quitting smoking in her wallet and on her car dashboard and hasn’t caved in to a nicotine craving.
If you can go a week without having a chocolate bar, or attend a party without having a drink with alcohol in it, splurge on a book or a massage as a reward. “Until the payoff is greater than the price you pay for indulging your habit, you’ll never quit,” says Seager.
Where you’re at
Your habit is no longer part of your routine, but you need to find ways to maintain good habits and avoid relapsing.
Celebrate your success
“Small steps along the way to quitting have to be recognized. They’re successes, too,” says Scurfield. McKie agrees: “The feeling you get from doing something healthy and nurturing boosts self-esteem.”
Prepare to stumble It’s part of the process. “You could be at any one stage many times before you are successful. But being back at square one doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You can start again,” says Turner. Experience is power.
A smoker who has tried to quit knows what withdrawal feels like, for example, and can plan to overcome it next time. Copland, Booth, McKie and Jessen couldn’t agree more. “Even if you fall back into old habits, you are a bit further ahead each time you try,” says Jessen. “Then just keep trying until you’re successful.”
Even small changes are worth the effort
Get motivated with these surprising figures: rank of alcohol as a risk for death after malnutrition, unsafe sex, high blood pressure and tobacco.
2 number of pounds gained over 10 years that increase your chance of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 24 per cent.
5 rank of alcohol as a risk for death and disease worldwide after malnutrition, unsafe sex, high blood pressure and tobacco.
7 ideal hours of sleep needed each night. Consistently getting one hour less each night raises risk of early death by 11 per cent. Less than four hours a night increases mortality risk 83 per cent.
8 number of years earlier the average smoker will die before a similar non-smoker. Life expectancy improves after a smoker quits.
24 minimum number of diseases and conditions, such as cancer and fertility problems, related to smoking.
30 to 40 percentage by which you can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer if you exercise moderately four times a week.
Consulting the following resources could help you kick bad habits for good:
Are You an Addict?
For some experts, an addiction is a harmful habit. Does nail-biting count? Probably not, but you could be an addict if your habit causes problems in your life and you continue to do it anyway, according to the 12-step model used for Alcoholics, Gamblers, Overeaters and Sexaholics Anonymous. “Addiction is at one end of a continuum and abstinence is at the other. We all fall somewhere in between,” says Paul Hanki, director of chemical dependency programs for the Nechako Treatment Centre in Prince George, B.C. “Social drinkers and alcoholics drink for the same reasons. The difference is that social drinkers know their limits.” If you think your habit is out of control, talk to your doctor or consult one of the quitting resources below.